Public health professionals are calling on the prime minister to do more to help the many families in the UK who cannot afford a decent diet.
Contrary to popular belief, people who are experiencing food poverty are not ignorant of what they should eat as part of a healthy diet or even where to buy affordable food. There is a wealth of research showing that the most important factor for having a healthy diet is access to affordable healthy food.
Money for food is the key flexible item in the budget of low income households. This means that the quantity and quality of food purchased and consumed by families is the first to suffer at times of financial hardship such as an unexpected bill or cut in work.
It is well documented that family members, particularly women, will go without food to ensure their children have enough. So food poverty is a gender inequality issue too.
Feeling full, not healthy
Families on a low income are not able to afford enough fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables, which are required as part of a healthy diet. Families with limited incomes are more concerned about hunger and are likely to choose food that is filling over what is high in nutrients. Historical studies of household food purchasing patterns suggest that parents with restricted food budgets would choose food with higher satiety value such as a packet of biscuits at less than 50p, compared to a bag of apples at around £1, as a snack for their children.
In the long term this kind of decis may contribute to higher risk of malnutrition among socially deprived households. Plus, families that don’t eat much fresh food are also disadvantaged because they miss out on the protective benefits of a diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables against cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
In the past decade, the strategy for promoting dietary change in the UK has largely focused on providing nutrition education. The emphasis was clearly placed on individual responsibility, relying on disseminating healthy eating advice as the main vehicle for change. Although dietary trends suggest improvements have been made, this is far from universal, with increasing health and nutritional inequalities between socio-economic groups.
Tackling food poverty requires more than just education. Initiatives that focus on nutrition education, or even on practical food skills, only paper over the cracks of the real issue, which is affordable food and a living wage. These small scale initiatives do not reach sufficient numbers of people and are therefore limited as part of the overall solution.
Research consistently demonstrates that low income households find it difficult to adopt healthy eating guidelines. Evidence shows that eating healthily is more expensive. Poor access to shops and inadequate storage and cooking facilities are also a factor for those on a low income – not lack of nutrition knowledge.
The ability to prepare food from raw ingredients – rather than relying on highly processed ready meals, which have less nutritional value than the fresh alternatives – however, does appear to be an important skill that many families have lost over the years. So many families are reliant upon buying processed foods and ready meals, which are not only typically higher in salt, sugar and fat content than fresh alternatives, but also more expensive to buy.
Rise of the food banks
Successive governments in the UK have chosen to ignore the important role of structural factors. This includes access to shopping facilities within neighbourhoods, regulation of the nutritional quality of food in the cheaper ranges of products sold by major retailers and the lack of a food element within welfare benefits.
The rise of food banks reflects the failure in the current welfare system for those families or individuals whose wages haven’t risen along with food prices. They should only be used in emergency situations and certainly not relied upon. Some people have criticised the nutritional value of foods served at food banks and the lack of fresh products, but they are only meant to provide calorific intake to stave off hunger in emergency situations. Indeed, families are restricted in the number of times they can access the services.
Let’s hope the government pays heed to this need to address the structural causes of food poverty. Otherwise the UK may end up on a similar path to the US where food poverty is far more widespread.